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Access and Stenographic Journalism in the Obama Era

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During the Bush years, progressives - rightly - criticized the Washington press corps for trading favorable coverage of the administration for access to the administration. Some reporters defended themselves by insisting that the administration created the necessity for such a quid pro quo, by effectively locking out anyone who didn't provide glowing coverage to the White House.

That argument, of course, is pathetic. There was plenty of (but certainly not enough) solid independent administration-questioning journalism happening during the Bush years. However, it came from real journalists who were willing to do investigative work, not from "journalists" who rely on the stenographic/ass-kiss model of reporting and who comprise the majority of the D.C. press corps.

(And if you don't believe that remains the majority of the D.C. press corps, I suggest you take a good look at how much coverage and attention the two leading stenographic journalists of our time, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, are getting this week for their new work of stenographic access journalism called Game Change. To know this form of "journalism" dominates D.C. - to know there hasn't been any kind of "game change" in journalism - is to simply compare how many D.C. media resources are going into scrutinizing the details of this work of tabloid trash versus how many journalism resources are going into scrutinizing, say, the details of the health care or financial legislation and/or how many resources went into scrutinizing, say, the case for the Iraq War).

The results of the Bush era are obvious - it was one of the darkest periods in American journalism history, as the triumph of the stenographic model gave us a media that largely refused to question reasons for war, financial meltdown (anyone remember Enron?) and corruption.

Now, with the Obama administration, the question is whether the same dynamic is at play - and if it is, what are the ramifications?

I don't know whether the Obama White House is using as heavy-handed tactics as the Bush White House - I don't know if there's an explicit access-for-favorable-propaganda deal at work. My guess is that while perhaps not as explicit as the Bush thugs, the Obama administration operates with the same paradigm. In my limited dealings with the Obama campaign's press operation and my less limited dealings with the congressional offices, I've learned the access-for-favorable-propaganda deal is now the norm - not the exception.

OK, so what's the upshot? What's that then mean for the political discourse? The Public Accountability Initiative's must-read LittleSis blog gives us a very good example that tells the larger tale, using Matt Taibbi's hard-hitting piece about the Obama administration's economic team - and the vitriolic response to the piece - as its vehicle.

You may recall that Tim Fernholz of the American Prospect, a self-described liberal journalism magazine, viciously attacked Taibbi. You may recall that the Prospect was soon humiliated for airing such an attack without actually showing that Taibbi was factually wrong in his article's major reporting and assertions. And you may also recall wondering why a "liberal" magazine would engage in such a counterproductive and substantively wrong attack on a reporter who was questioning the credentials/promises of the Obama administration from the liberal left.

Well here's a possible answer to the mystery - one that goes right to the perils of access and stenographic journalism in the Obama era:

Much of Taibbi's piece focused on Robert Rubin's network and its dominance of economic posts in the Obama administration, analysis which Fernholz dismissed as conspiratorial.

Interesting, then, that Fernholz recently met with one of the Obama economic officials and former Rubin underlings mentioned in Taibbi's piece: Diana Farrell, deputy director of the National Economic Council...

The fact that Fernholz enjoys special access to White House officials may help explain why he mounted such an "intemperate attack" on Taibbi, as (Reuters') Felix Salmon called it. I don't mean to suggest anything nefarious or conspiratorial (God forbid!). Just that Fernholz is on good terms with the Obama economic team and their leading lights, and this likely helped influence his views of Taibbi's article.

What is this kind of access worth? The piece Fernholz interviewed Farrell for, "The Myth of Too Big to Fail," amounts to a flimsy, meandering defense of the Obama administration's unwillingness to break up the big banks. Fernholz says that he spoke to a wide range of sources for the story, including consumer advocates and congressional staffers. Farrell appears to be the only interviewee quoted in the piece, and she is quoted at length (Dean Baker is also quoted, but that quote appears here). Fernholz essentially built the piece around her quotes, offering no counterpoint or critical framing of her arguments (see Simon Johnson for the opposite view).

Do we really need more journalists peddling the administration's views on Wall Street and the economy? A line from Fernholz's critique of Taibbi comes to mind: "This is pernicious for a lot of journalistic reasons..."

Look, do I think there was an explicit quid pro quo between the Prospect and the administration? Do I think Fernholz traded access to a high administration economic official for both a celebratory article about the administration's economic policy and an attack on an administration critic? No, of course not. That's not how politics and media work - the compromises, corruptions and capitulations are more immersive than transactional, more osmotic than wink-and-nod. If you are rooted in access and stenographic journalism, as parts of (but not all of) the Prospect is, there's a natural tendency to treat more gently those whose access you rely on.

Now it should go without saying that progressivism and real journalism are not synonymous with lockstep criticism of Obama administration, and anti-progressivism and stenographic journalism is not synonymous with lockstep hagiography of the administration. Real life just doesn't cut that cleanly.

However, it is worth being aware that stenographic journalism is not an exclusive phenomenon of the Bush era and - more importantly - may not be an exclusive phenomenon of the corporate media. Indeed, just as the administration has successfully converted many of D.C.'s Professional Liberal organizations into administration sycophants (what Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher calls corralling them into the "veal pen"), so too may it try to use the carrot of access to coerce liberal-labeled media to serve as the administration's house organ of political defense.

At one level, that is a brilliant-if-cynical strategy by the White House: If liberal publications are attacking progressive independent administration critics like Taibbi, then the implicit message beyond the overt attacks is that someone like Taibbi's arguments can be wholly written off not on the substance, but on the simple fact that he clearly must be on the extreme ideological fringe. I mean, hell, if you are being attacked by the "liberal" American Prospect, you've gotta be some sort of communist, right?

At another level, though, it misunderstands the new media ecosphere. For every liberal DC publication like the Prospect trying to base part of its niche on inside access there are other liberal media organizations that have the opposite model: namely, questioning power, regardless of who has that power.

Look at the terrific independent reporting of people like Arianna Huffington, Ryan Grim, Sam Stein and Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post. Look at the awesome health care and financial coverage from Firedoglake. Look at Chris Hayes' pieces in the Nation or Dylan Ratigan's coverage of the financial crisis. Look at Naomi Klein, Jeremy Scahill, David Brancaccio and Bill Moyers. Look at sites like LittleSis, Salon or (excuse the momentary self-congratulatory suggestion) at OpenLeft. It's not that these reporters and outlets bash the administration for bashing's sake - it's merely that their model and disposition is to not trade propagandistic coverage for inside access, and to treat facts as more important than partisan affinity.

Some of that encouraging success has come because some of these people aren't actually in DC, and therefore don't feel the personal conflicts and uncomfortable social pangs that come with the idea of writing hard-hitting stuff about the same administration staffers DC journalists hang out with after work. But a lot of it is because progressive media has discovered new avenues for genuinely independent reportage.

So sure, it's discouraging to see old liberal magazines like the Prospect (which, by the way, still produces a lot of stuff of genuine value) sometimes serve as the Obama administration's left-attacking hitman. And sure, it's discouraging (though not surprising) that the administration might be engaged in similar media management tactics as the Bush administration. But when you look at the trends and progress in the progressive mediascape, that kind of cynical behavior will be increasingly ineffective.